One of the things I do for a living (let's face it, until I sell that screenplay for a million dollars, it is the only thing I do for a living) is do coverage, script consultation and read scripts for contests. I actually really like doing it because, at the risk of sounding incredibly egotistical and near sociopathic, I am incredibly good at it. It's not unusual for my first reads to make it to the top ten (when I started at Slamdance, the first four years in a row one of my first reads was chosen first place--even if I didn't vote for it).
I thought I might write about something that happened at the end of a contest once upon a time when the quarter finalists and finalists were being decided, something that might shed some light on how the process works. This time the process was a bit more interesting than before because the person who ran it had me do something she hadn't had me do before. She asked me to pick my top twenty. This meant I had to reduce a list of 35 that I recommended for a further read (not just my first reads, but also second and third reads) to twenty. Now, of course, some of the choices were easy (in fact, I think she and I agreed on what was the obvious best script, though I could be wrong). But after choosing the obvious ones, it became more and more painful to winnow it down to 20.
But I did it. Since this was the first time I did this for this contest, I was actually kind of panicked. How many of my choices would the head of the contest agree with or would she think, "this guy is really full of shit if he thinks he knows a good script from a bad one". In other words, would this list confirm that I knew what I was talking about, or would it show me to be a fraud?
Add to this that I didn't know which of my first reads got a second and then third read, which meant I could be putting scripts on my top twenty that I liked, but others thought were the product of the mentally ill off spring of a brother and sister, scripts which might have been dumped weeks before.
Then, after submitting my list, I got an e-mail back and she asked why three particular scripts didn't make my top ten. And I didn't know what to say and I panicked, of course. I did like all three scripts, but one can't put everything on a top twenty. But what could I say? I did respond with my reasons (I thought one incredibly well written, but too formulaic, etc.) and she was very supportive of my reasonings (though not in full agreement).
However, something interesting did happen here that might give insight into the decision making process. Out of the top 35, there were eight that I considered to be somewhat similar in tone and style, what I call small, independent films. These are actually my favorite types of films. However, I wasn't about to have eight of the same type of films on my top twenty list, so I ended up with only four of them on the list. Two of the three she had e-mailed about had ended up on the cutting room floor for the reason (though not completely, I did have some problems with them that also made me leave them out) that they were too similar to some other scripts.
When I told a friend this, he asked me, "But aren't you suppose to chose the best script no matter the genre, niche or style, etc.". Yes and no. What I told him is that it is like the choosing of Sonia Sotomayor--at some point there is no such thing as the best. There gets a point where there are a bunch of equals. So what do you do then? Well, you bring other elements into the decision making process, like not wanting to have two time travel movies in the top ten even if both are extremely well written.
She then asked me to something even more nightmarish: winnow my top twenty down to a top seven. This was so painful. But it had to be done. The interesting part of this was that she e-mailed me and asked why I included one particular one; she thought it very flawed. It was a second read on my part, so it wasn't like I was the first person to like it, but again, I had to explain my reasoning. Though one of the things I said, among others, was that it could be that it was just one of those scripts that effects one strongly and one may never be able to rationally explain why. And all readers have those (it can lead to some very interesting discussions/arguments at decision making times).
What was also interesting here is that of the seven (actually nine because I mentioned two more that I said were so difficult to remove, but I did because again, I felt they were too similar in style to another one in the top seven--the three were all high concept films), none were my first reads. This particular year was perhaps one of the only times where, though I liked many of my first reads, they didn't excite me as much as other people's first reads. In fact, I was getting frustrated at times wondering why everybody else was getting all the good scripts (but it happens; scripts are assigned randomly and there has to be a year where others are going to get all the good ones).
But it didn't stop there. All nine of the ones I chose here were going to be in the top 20. Now I had to chose two from my list that weren't in the top nine, two that I wanted to fight for in order to help fill out the top 20 list. That was also very hard, but I chose two comedies that didn't cross over to other genres, one because I did like them very much, but two, because I thought I hadn't recommended enough pure comedies.
So I don't know if this gives people who enter contests any more of an insight as to how some decisions are made, but I thought it might be something worthwhile letting people in on.